(VATICAN CITY) — Pope Benedict’s former butler took the stand at his own trial Tuesday to say that while he admits he took thousands of documents from the pope’s private apartments and leaked them to the media, he is not guilty of theft because he was doing it for the good of the church, “to bring the church back on the right track.”
“I declare myself innocent concerning the charge of aggravated theft,” former butler Paolo Gabriele told the court. “I feel guilty of having betrayed the trust of the Holy Father, whom I love as a son would.”
Intrigue, corruption and back-stabbing are not new at The Vatican; what is new is that Gabriele’s indiscretions have opened the doors on Vatican dirty deeds in a way that has never happened before.
Gabriele, 46, worked in Pope Benedict XVI’s private apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. He brought the pope his breakfast, helped him dress and was constantly at his side. No layman was closer to the pope.
Only eight accredited Vatican journalists are allowed to observe the court proceedings, which are conducted only in Italian. They are chosen by lottery.
One of them, veteran Vatican reporter Paddy Agnew of the Irish Times, told ABC News that Gabriele was calm and dignified.
For Agnew there were two critical points that surfaced:
“He points out that — as the butler — he is the closest lay person to him. And as example serving him at the table, he exchanges words and has a chat and he came to the conclusion that, from those exchanges that the Pope is not as informed as he should be, he does not know things that he should know … about things in the world, in the Vatican, in the church,” Agnew said. “We are not talking about football results, we are talking about serious matters of church affairs and state affairs.”
“The other thing he said…is — he speaks of the degradation of the church, the degrade, or the dissatisfaction amongst people in the curia, he comes to the conclusion that a person of power, a person of huge decisional power is very open to manipulation,” Agnew said. “He doesn’t say that the pope is very open to manipulation, but one presumes that is who he is referring to.”
It adds up to portrait of a pope who is not in control of his own church. Benedict, now age 85, is clearly frail. He returned just Monday from a three-month summer break at his hillside residence outside Rome.
Since he ascended to the papacy in 2005, Benedict has been criticized for being more interested in books than in the business of governing. What seems to have set off the butler is a growing sense of alienation around the pope’s second-in-command, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who is effectively the Vatican’s prime minister. Bertone has the pope’s trust and runs the day-to-day affairs at the Vatican on the pope’s behalf.
The scandal, known as “Vatileaks,” built this spring as more and more confidential papal documents began appearing in Italian newspapers. They exposed widespread corruption, cronyism and backdoor payments in return for favors.
It reached a crescendo in May when an Italian journalist published His Holiness: Pope Benedict XVI’s Private Papers, a book that became an overnight bestseller here. It chronicled intrigue and scandal and included copies of private documents to prove it. Documents show that wealthy Catholics could gain an audience with the pope simply by donating 10,000 euros ($13,000). Many of the documents point to Bertone.
In court Tuesday the pope’s private secretary Georg Gaenswein said it was only when he read the book that he realized that Gabriele had to be the source of the leaks, because some documents had clearly been taken from a desk that only Gaenswein and Gabriele had access to.
That led to an Agatha Christie-like moment in the pope’s apartment when Gaenswein summoned all of the papal employees into a room and asked each one: “Did you steal the documents?” Everyone, including Gabriele, denied it.
Several days later, 82 cardboard boxes of evidence were removed from the Vatican apartment Gabriele shares with his wife and three children. Again Tuesday Gabriele insisted he was acting entirely on his own, but few Vatican observers believe that.
“I think the butler is too simple a person to do something on his own,” papal biographer Marco Politi said. “If it happened, there are others helping him and maybe leading him.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Gabriele did not have malicious intent.
“Paolo Gabriele has clearly admitted having committed the act, to having collected and brought these confidential documents out. He stated that he did not act for economic gain, but because of the personal unease he was living in and feeling around him,” he said.
The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday and again on Friday when it may conclude.
Vatican sources say if Gabriele is found guilty he is almost certain to be pardoned by the pope.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN